Pope Francis' predecessor, Benedict, learned early on in his reign of the Holy See just how much can go wrong in dialog with Islam. In 2006, a year after taking office, Benedict gave a controversial speech in Regensburg, Germany. In it, he quoted a Byzantine emperor who accused the Islamic prophet Muhammad of being inhumane and doing only evil deeds. Muslims rioted around the world and burned churches from Algiers and Islamabad.
German-Lebanese Islamic scholar Hussein Hadam confirmed that Pope Benedict angered many in the Islam world with his Regensburg speech. In an attempt at damage control, Benedict expressed his "deep regret" over the misunderstanding. Despite the pope traveling to Turkey in 2008 to revive Christian-Muslim dialogue, the speech inflicted lasting damage, Hamda said.
This was all the more evident two years ago when the Al-Azhar University in Cairo ceased all dialogue with the Vatican. Al-Azhar is the preeminent university of Sunni Islam, while it is regarded as a central authority in all matters of faith.
Cited as the official reason behind the dialogue freeze were remarks made by Pope Benedict following an attack on Christians in Egypt - the pope had called for better protection for Christians. "In Cairo," says Hamdan, "it was seen as interference in internal affairs." But in the end, this reaction must be understood in the context of the Regensburg speech.
The Cairo university responded positively to the change of leadership within the Catholic Church. "Congratulations to all the Catholics around the world on the election of a new pope," said Mahmoud Azab, an adviser for interreligious affairs at the Al-Azhar University. The University is hoping for "better relations" with the Vatican. "Once there is a new policy, we'll reestablich dialogue with the Vatican."
Hamdan said the new pope will have to address the plight of Christians in Egypt and other countries. "It is important to be in this together, to seek dialogue with the clerics and with the authorities to find solutions. This is the best and only way," he said. One shouldn't talk about Muslims, but with them, he added.
Christian-Muslim relations are marred by conflict not only in Egypt, but in many multi-religious African countries. In Nigeria, for example, there are frequent clashes between Christian and Muslim extremists.
Boubacar Seydou Toure, head of the Islamic Association in neighboring Niger, emphasized the importance of dialogue. "The first thing the Pope should do is to work for honest, interdenominational dialogue between Christians and Muslims," Toure said. "When the sons of these two religions join hands, then we can live together in peace."
Sheikh Issa bin Shaaban Simba, grand mufti of the east African country of Tanzania, sees things similarly. He hopes the election of Benedict's successor to will open a new chapter in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Muslims. This is particularly important for Tanzania, where the relationship between Christians and Muslims has remained tense. "We must move away from the fear, and move towards hope and peace, where everyone sees themselves as brothers."
Hope for poor
Indonesia, with its some 200 million believers, has more Muslims than any other country in the world. In a country where Christians are a minority, Azyumardi Azra from the State Islamic University in Jakarta hopes that a new pope will bring religions from around the world together, rather then triggering any new controversies.
Azra has high hopes for Francis. That the new pope is an Argentine plays an important role, since he comes from the global South - something Azra believes will make Francis more understanding of problems affecting Asia, Africa and Latin America, especially for the poor. "He will attend to the people who have continually been left behind," Azra said.
Indonesian Christians also pin hope on intensifying dialogue with Islam. Secretary general of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Trilaksyanta Pujasumarta, said such dialogue "is very important for us, as Catholics who live in a country with an Islamic majority." He hopes that Pope Francis will seek dialogue with the Muslims.
German Muslims seek cooperation
Islamic associations in Germany are hopeful for a clear commitment to inter-denominational dialogue from the new pope. Erol Pürlü, spokesman of the Coordination Council of Muslims, said, "We want a pope who is open to dialogue and for Muslim-Catholic congress." It's also important that the new head of the Catholic Church approach Muslims and other religions with respect, he added.
Also Bekir Alboga, executive spokesperson of the Turkish-Islamic Union - the largest individual body in the Coordination Council of Muslims - hopes for a pope who decisively and publicly seeks dialogue. The head of the Catholic Church should promote cooperation between Christians and Muslims, and not be acting in competition, he added.
Aiman Mazek, chairperson of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, wished the pontiff well as he took on his new responsibilities. "We hope he raises his voice for the poor and oppressed without glossing things over, like the trampling of human rights in Syria," Mazek said. If Francis is on the side of the poor and needy, that would be "right and beneficial."